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Remembering 1857

To discuss the practice of memory and its relations to politics, social scientists rely on three kinds of practices - memorialising, memorising and the act of remembering/forgetting. The commemoration of "1857" is unique in that official celebrations of the event have been instituted even as 1857 continues to refigure in myths and endures as a symbol of popular resistance. The articles in this special issue address the seeming contradictions and complexities that "remembering" 1857 involves, and the tension that prevails between different kinds of recall.

Remembering 1857

An Introductory Note

To discuss the practice of memory and its relations to politics, social scientists rely on three kinds of practices – memorialising, memorising and the act of remembering/forgetting. The commemoration of “1857” is unique in that official celebrations of the event have been instituted even as 1857 continues to refigure in myths and endures as a symbol of popular resistance. The articles in this special issue address the seeming contradictions and complexities that “remembering” 1857 involves, and the tension that prevails between different kinds of recall.


he 150th anniversary of 1857 is being celebrated in many parts of India. That is one kind of remembering of the historical rebellion. Anniversaries ring of calendars set to different scales, from the national and the regional to the personal. Calendars mean order, some ordering of national or personal time. There must be an element of unintended historical irony about the process by which popular rebellions or insurgencies – the quintessential politics of which is to challenge an oppressive order by collective gestures of defiance, a phenomenon that Ranajit Guha once called “negation” – become domesticated festive dates on a national calendar and cease to act, or so at least the makers of the calendar hope, as an incitement to further rebellion.1 This short introductory essay is built around the tension between these two kinds of recall of the original event: as a recurring, ceremonial date in the life of the nation and as a perpetual incitement to future rebellion.

What is the politics of remembering 1857? To facilitate discussion, I shall begin by distinguishing between three kinds of practices involved in the work of memory. I do not claim that these three practices exhaust the complex phenomenon of memory. These are simply the practices that usually come under the purview of the social sciences, while there remain many other aspects to memory – such that scientists study – but social scientists are not trained to speak of them. The three functions I have in mind are (a) memorialising, (b) memorising, and

(c) remembering/forgetting. Both memorialising and memorising have to do with representations of the past. The third function

– that of remembering/forgetting – takes us beyond the politics of representation. To speak in terms that thinkers such as Roman Jakobson or Roland Barthes once made available, it could be said that the relation between memorialising and memorising is somewhat akin to that between metaphor and metonymy, while the third function, remembering/forgetting, takes memory-work beyond that of representation. Let me begin by explaining my terms, one by one.2

I Memory and the Question of Forgetting 1857

There is one kind of memory of 1857 that is perhaps now irretrievably lost. This is the past as personal grief: memory that would have expressed itself at the time in numerous acts of personal grieving, in families’ and kin-groups’ sense of loss and bereavement, both on the British side and on the Indian. Think, for example, of the 250 rebels hanged or some blown to pieces at the mouth of guns near Peshawar by the orders of Colonel John Nicholson in May 1857 or the British prisoners put to death the following month in Jhansi by the rebels, details of which incidents are here reported in this special issue by Kaushik Roy. How much do we know about the history of the pain that their relatives would have suffered and about the expression and duration of such pain? Precious little. Not simply because we have no documents, though there is no denying that documents, if they had existed, would have helped us to produce accounts of such painful memory. The more important reason, it seems to me, why our memory-practices to do with deeply personal sense of loss challenge historical representation is because these practices speak often to a level existence that is better captured by phenomenological thinking than by the kind of paper-trail that the historian routinely chases.

The Italian author Alessandro Portelli’s remarkable book, The Order Has Been Carried Out, gives some examples that might help us to think through the problem.3 Portelli’s book is a study (mostly) of the wives and children of 335 unarmed and innocent civilians who were mercilessly gunned down by Nazi occupation forces in Rome on March 24, 1944 in retaliation for a partisan attack on some Nazi personnel the day before. He gives several examples of expression of grief where the expression is built into everyday practices, leaving no traces for the future historian. “We asked my grandmother”, says one of Portelli’s interviewees, “no questions about this story [to do with the interviewee’s uncle killed in the massacre], as we knew it was almost a taboo subject that you couldn’t touch. I remember that she had this golden brooch with my uncle’s picture, she always kept it pinned to her suit, so the pain of this story is something that was passed through to us, too.” Yet this transmission of pain was conditional on what was described here as “a great deal of restraint”.4 Or there was this case of another mother whose grief was expressed life-long through her physical orientation to the world at times of holidays:

Most of the time [she] tried to deny it, and so she thought he was abroad, she thought he was away. She knew, but she had developed this neurotic denial of death – my grandfather wrote about it in some poems – where on holidays she would set the table for him, and when the season changed she would bring out his winter or

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

his summer clothes; so that this agony was revived for those who had come to terms with the problem of this death.5

Portelli’s material comes from interviews. But in either example, we are dealing with expressions of grief, culturally specific in their particularities no doubt, that would have left no evidence on paper. Coming back to 1857, who knows how the bereft grieved and for how long. This later forgetting of grief of the survivors of the event belongs to the memory function that challenges the very question of representation. Without representation at a primary level, there is no second or third-order representation that we usually call history.

If grief presents us thus with a lost object of representation, there exists, it would seem, a critical relation between this lost object and the object whose representation founds the nation. Take Rabindranath Tagore’s great novel Gora, serialised first in the Bengali magazine Prabasi between the years 1907 and 1909. The novel is set in Calcutta in the 1880s. Gora, the central character of the novel, is a child brought up by Hindu-Bengali foster-parents. In his 20s, he becomes a convert to the stridently Hindu nationalism that was sweeping across Bengal at the time. It is only towards the end of the novel, faced with a dying father who tells Gora that he has no right to perform ‘sradhha’ should the father die, that he discovers suddenly his biological identity: he was not born a Hindu. He was born of Irish parents during the tumultuous events of 1857. Krishnadayal, his foster-father says to him: “It was during the Mutiny. We were in Etawa then. Your mother fled from the sipahis and sought refuge one night in our house. Your father was killed in the previous day’s fighting. …He was an Irishman. That very night your mother died after giving birth to you. Ever since then you have been brought up in our house.”6 Krishnadayal offered to tell Gora the name of his biological father: “His name was –”. Gora stopped him midway through the sentence: “His name is not necessary. I don’t need to know his name.”7

As is well known, it was on this deliberate refusal on Gora’s part to know the lost object of his grief – on this void – that Tagore outlined the condition that made it possible for Gora to be both expansively and inclusively Indian. “Today”, says Gora in the last chapter of the novel, “I am Bharatiya. Within me there is no conflict between communities, whether Hindu or Muslim or Khrishtan. Today all the castes of Bharat are my caste, whatever everybody eats is my food.” And he continues in this vein: “I have taken birth this morning, with an utterly naked consciousness, in my own Bharatvarsha. … Teach me the mantra of that deity who belongs to all – Hindu, Musalman, Khrishtan, Brahmo

  • the doors of whose temple are never closed to any person...
  • the deity not only of Hindus but of Bharatvarsha.”8 It was as if only by making the grief of the Irish family (including his own) unavailable to any order of signs that Gora could bring his identity as Indian within the sphere of representation.
  • My conclusion, then, is: we have no memories of 1857. There were no doubt such memories once but they died without heirs. Andrew Ward tells the story of William Jonah Shepherd, a Kanpur survivor. His nerves were so “frayed” by the scene of his family’s massacre that, much though he tried, he could not write down his “memories” for about 20 years, and when he did, he depended on other people’s published papers for accuracy. His descendants barely remembered him. His letters were all lost. The family “would never name a child after him” for “Uncle Jonah had such bad luck”.9 For the Indian rebels, there is not even this much detail about the complexities of familial grief and the process of remembering/forgetting that challenge, as I have said, representation. Insofar as 1857 is concerned, all we have, it seems to me, is the politics of memorialising and memorising the event, that is to say, the politics, indeed, of representation, of metaphorical and metonymic use of the composite name “1857”.

    The Metaphoric Function of Memorialising

    Memorialising has to do with the creation of memorials, temporary or permanent. But memorials, as mere objects, cannot perform the function of memorialising. Memorialising happens when particular objects associated with someone or some event we want to remember, are put in a relationship to certain practices to create rituals of remembering. Such rituals are usually collective in nature. A good example is the modern story of Shivaji’s memorial in Raigad, Maharashtra. Once erected in the memory of the king who gave the Mughals many sleepless nights, it had fallen into utter disrepair by the 19th century with a jungle growing up around it. It was a European writer, James Douglas, the author of Book of Bombay (1883), who first drew attention to its dilapidated condition and upbraided nationalists in Maharashtra for neglecting the memory of Chhatrapati Shivaji. It was then that Ranade, Tilak, and a host of others moved in the 1880s to petition the government to sanction money for its repair and later created special nationalists rituals around the ‘samadhi’.10 By itself, then, the samadhi performed no memorialising function. It was only through a combination of its own materiality and (nationalist) ritual activities associated with it that the samadhi resumed its status as a memorial.

    1857, similarly has left many material traces, from the ruins of the Residency building in Lucknow, the Memorial Well at Kanpur, Felice Beato’s photographs, William Simpson’s watercolours, to archival documents that scholars have pored over to produce historical narratives of “the mutiny”. These relics can become memorials depending on what use we put them to. And, sometimes, they have indeed performed as memorials. As Narayani Gupta writes:

    In the years after 1858, visitors to north India would reverently relive the episodes (of 1857) by pacing them out on the ground, aided by detailed maps and copious albums of photographs. As the sites became pilgrim-destinations the concept of “monument” used for historic architecture widened to include sacred landscapes like the Ridge at Delhi and memorials to those who had died in 1857-58. Historic buildings like the Delhi fort were invested with new interest through their connection with the events of the revolt.11

    What is at issue is the critical role of practices in making memorialising possible. Photographs, maps, stories, coupled with the practice of travel or pilgrimage, could be part of a memorialising complex. Books or even films, as Rochona Majumdar and I have tried to suggest in our essay in this issue, can be grist to the mill of memorialising. Surely, the official history of 1857, 1857, written by Surendranath Sen, was issued by the government of India to memorialise the momentous year. Publishing a book to mark the national calendar, creating a readership through journals, seminars and conferences, was indeed to memorialise.

    The first step towards memorialising, it seems to me, is to create out of a set of events a second or higher-order representation. This is what I have called the metaphoric aspect of memorialising. Just as Jakobson defined “metaphor” as the “word for word”

    Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 connection in language, one could say that to attempt to make the events of 1857 stand for a larger, coherent theme is to create a metaphor out of these events: i e, to make these events represent something beyond their immediacy. This is where this present issue, at one level a memorialising enterprise marking the 150th anniversary of 1857, also takes a critical stance on anniversaries. For many of the essays collected here critically engage the metaphoric function that gives an anniversary its representational drive. Peter Robb questions many of the larger metaphors that have subtended scholarly and amateur interest in the subject: the “myth” of an “Indian revolt” and colonial arguments that made 1857 into a ground for debating “the nature of India and the way it should be ruled”. Sabyasachi Dasgupta similarly questions the tendency to look on 1857 as a “people’s revolt” though Kaushik Roy makes the events of rebellion an instance of the idea of “people’s war” that he sees as part of an emergent global history in the middle of the 19th century. Aishwarya Lakshmi and Swarupa Gupta both delineate and critique colonial and Bengalinationalist attempts, respectively, to render 1857 intelligible by producing out of it larger narratives about the feminised landscape of India (wanting to be colonised) or a space for “reconfiguring the nation”. Barlow and Subramaniam’s detailed discussion of the career of north Indian music and Anu Kumar’s essay on the Delhi College before and after 1857, both ask if 1857 was indeed the fulcrum around which turned the meta-narrative of transition to “modernisation” of music and education under British rule. Fisher’s essay brings into view a global aspect to the history of 1857 by focusing on Indians in Britain. Here, again, 1857 is both staged and queried as a turning-point in the larger narrative of race relations in the empire.

    It is the conversion of an event into a metaphor of relevance to public life that makes for a degree of competition in the public sphere as to which event should be memorialised, that is to say, which event could act as the best bearer of a chosen metaphor. In democracies, such competition borrows from the available language of equal or proportional representation. In his aforementioned book, Portelli cites an interviewee who resented the attention that the monument at the Fosse Ardeatine received in the commemoration of the Nazi massacre of 1944. He has an interviewee called Nicoletta Leoni say:

    It isn’t right that in Rome we should talk only of the Fosse Ardeatine. We should talk also of Forte Bravetta, we should talk of La Storta, we should talk of people killed in the streets. My grandfather had been sentenced to death, he might have died at Forte Bravetta; now, if he had died at Forte Bravetta, how would I feel when all that people talk about is the Ardeatine? But the media, if you tell them about Forte Bravetta, they don’t care. Do you know why the Ardeatine are so important? Because the monument is there.12

    Echoing as it were the questions posed by Leoni, Sabyasachi Dasgupta asks in this issue, “Why do we celebrate the revolt (of 1857) as the first war of independence? Why should not we celebrate say the santhal and the Moplah uprisings or for that matter countless other uprisings? Why are their 150th anniversaries not commemorated?” The same contestatory spirit is documented in the contributions, say, of Charu Gupta, Badri Narayan, Shashank Sinha, and in Lata Singh’s essay on “Courtesans and the 1857 Revolt”. All of these essays ask versions of Nicoletta Leoni’s questions. They seek to represent the hitherto underrepresented in the histories and commemorations of 1857: the courtesan, the dalits and dalit women, the tribal peoples of overlooked regions. They document the demand – sometimes partially realised – for new commemorations and anniversaries, that is to say, for a new national calendar and new set of heroes: Matadin Bhangi, Jhalkariibai and others. Gupta and Narayan, by their use of ballads and songs, also point to a domain of popular, anti-elite history and alternative practices of celebrations and claims to the nation that challenge the official narrative of Indian nationalism. In both cases, what is fascinating is the absorption into the language of electoral politics in north India – by Mayawati, by the Bahujan Samaj Party and other agencies – of dalit heroes and the tales about their valour relating to the battles of 1857.

    Memorialising, one may then say, has a public character and seizes upon a historical moment to produce metaphors for public life. It is, however, at the same time open to all the contestations of public life as well. And this collection of essays bears ample and rich testimony to this contestation.

    Memorising 1857: The Metonymic Function

    By “memorising”, I refer to acts of remembering that work through certain short-hand devices that could be, in a manner of speaking, compared to mnemonics. However, my use of the term “memorising”, which owes much to the classic studies of Frances Yates and Paul Ricoeur, is also different from theirs.13 So I need to explain a little. Readers of Ricoeur will find my juxtaposition of “memorising” and “remembering” in the first sentence of this paragraph strange because Ricoeur clearly sees the two terms, with good reason, as opposed in meaning. We remember things that have happened before. “The temporal mark of the before thus constitutes the distinctive mark of remembering”, writes Ricoeur.14 Memorising, something that Yates, drawing on her sources, calls “artificial memory,” relates to what we deliberately use as a learning strategy for mastering something unfamiliar (such as a foreign language).15

    So why do I use “memorising” with respect to 1857? Why do I use “remembering” and “memorising” in the same sentence? It seems to me that 1857 produced much panic on the European side (shared by many non-combatant Indians as well). Its counterpart on the side of the rebels would be fear, the fear that British revenge wanted to instil in them. It is hard to find a continuous account of what this panic, or its memory, did to the colonial officialdom in the years following 1857. We have some indirect pieces of evidence close to hand. Writing on the occasion of the centenary of 1857, the communist leader and writer P C Joshi recalled that when Keir Hardie came to India in 1907, “the year of the 50th anniversary of the 1857 uprising”, Hardie noted “in what jitters the British administration were”, Joshi also cited Edward Thompson who, in 1925, wrote of “the Mutiny” as an “unavenged and unappeased ghost” that flitted “right at the back of the mind of many an Indian …as he talks with an Englishman”.16 Thompson’s statement may have had a measure of truth; but he was also probably looking into a mirror. Statements such as his and Hardie’s point to a long after-life of the events of 1857 in the minds of the British in India.

    At the same time, it is clear that for historians on the Left, too, irrespective of debates about whether or not 1857 was a “popular revolt”, the rising has, for quite some time, meant a general figure of insurgency in the countryside that was to presage political developments in the 20th century. Max Harcourt, who in the 1970s studied peasant rebellions in Bihar and eastern UP during the Quit India (1942) movement, was struck by the

    Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

    similarity between the violent events of that movement and those of 1857. “The pattern of unrest”, he writes, “ was very reminiscent of the rural disturbances accompanying the 1857 Mutiny”, the only difference being that the peasantry, disarmed after 1857, had no weapons to match those of the British.17 Ranajit Guha’s classic book on peasant insurgency in 19th century India – that sought to distil out of 1857 and other risings a general paradigm for peasant insurgency in this period – saw the same logic of insurrection at work in the anti-vasectomy campaign of the mid1970s in north India: “ has merely to refer to some of the anti-‘nasbandi’ disturbances in rural Haryana and urban UP in 1976-77 to realise how little the transfer of power has done to diminish the force of the paradigm (of peasant insurgency) illustrated … by 18th and 19th century events”.18 The inspiration that Guha’s words provided to his younger colleagues in Subaltern Studies seems to be at work even today. Why else would the Forum for Democratic Initiatives in Delhi propose to hold a conference at the Gandhi Peace Foundation (ironies abound!) on March 20, 2007 on ‘1857 and the Legacy of Peasant Resistance’ and give it the sub-title, ‘Tebhaga, Telangana, Naxalbari and Now, Singur’?19 This, clearly, is an instance of not just celebrating a day on the national calendar but actually looking on 1857 as the precursor of many other rebellions to come.

    Thus, whether on the colonialist’s side or on that of the historian of the Left, 1857 came to be codified into a general form of insurrection. By this code, 1857 is simply an incitement to popular politics, a call to insurgency. I have used the word “memorising” to refer to this of silent process of codification, a deposition of memory that gets activated through triggers (a metonymic process or in Jakobson’s terms, a word-to-word connection). This latter kind of recall of 1857 exceeds the logic of simple anniversary celebrations. Surely, if 1857 were still seen in official circles as a potent and possible form of popular unrest that could break out any time and on a large scale in the country, the government in Delhi would not be disbursing money to facilitate seminars and symposia celebrating the anniversary. These two different kinds of recall of 1857 – as incitement for popular politics and as a festive time on the national calendar – and the inherent tension between them is what I have wanted to address in this introductory essay. My point is that for good historical reasons, insurgencies have remained a potential form of popular politics in India just as riots on the streets have been a part of French democracy since the revolution. That is why the element of incitement cannot ever be completely domesticated or extinguished by the process that makes for a stable national calendar of political anniversaries of events such as 1857.




    1 Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983, Chapter on ‘Negation’.

    2 I am drawing mainly on two essays: Roland Barthes’, ‘Myth Today’ in his Mythologies, translated Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984; first published in French, 1957, pp 109-59 and Roman Jakobson, ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances’ in his Language in Literature, eds, Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1987, pp 95-114.

    3 Alessandro Portelli, The Order Has Been Carried Out: History, Memory, and Meaning of a Nazi Massacre in Rome, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.

    4 Portelli, Order, p 212. 5 Portelli, Order, p 213. 6 Rabindranath Tagore, Gora, translated by Sujit Mukherjee Sahitya

    Akademi, Delhi, 2001, p 471. 7 Tagore, Gora, p 471. 8 Tagore, Gora, pp 475-76. 9 Andrew Ward, Our Bodies Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacre and

    the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996, pp 542-44.

    10 Sanjiv Desai (ed), Maharashtra Archives Bulletin, Nos 13 and 14: The Shivaji Commemoration Movement, Department of Archives, Bombay, 1983, pp iii-v.

    11 Narayani Gupta, ‘Pictorialising the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857’ in Maria Antonella Pelizzari (ed), Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900, Canadian Centre for Architecture and Yale Centre for British Art, Montreal and New Haven, 2003, p 225.

    12 Portelli, Order, p 240.

    13 See Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1974; Paul Ricoeur, ‘The Uses of Artificial Memory: The Feats of Memorisation’ in his Memory, History, Forgetting, translated Kathleen Blamey and David Pellaur, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004, pp 58-68.

    14 Ricoeur, Memory, p 58.

    15 Yates, Art, Chapter 1: ‘Three Latin Sources for the Classical Art of Memory’.

    16 P C Joshi, ‘1857 in Our History’ in P C Joshi (ed), Rebellion 1857: A Symposium, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1957, p 217.

    17 Max Harcourt, ‘Kisan Populism and Revolution in Rural India: The 1942 Disturbances in Bihar and East United Provinces’ in D A Low (ed), Congress and the Raj: Facets of the Indian Struggle, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004; first published in 1977, pp 318-20.

    18 Guha, Elementary Aspects, p 336.

    19 I take the details of this event from a notice of the seminar received via a list-serve email.



    March 10, 2007
    Social, Economic and Educational Conditions of Indian Muslims – Rakesh Basant
    A Comment on the Analysis in Sachar Report – Steven Wilkinson
    The Condition of Muslims – Ghanshyam Shah
    Indian Muslims: The Varied Dimensions of Marginality – Rowena Robinson
    Conditioned Lives? – M A Kalam
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    Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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